Betty May is one of those people whose life is extremely difficult to disentangle from the myth. Part of this is her own fault. She published an autobiography that is probably equal parts truth and fiction (Tiger Woman, first published in 1929), and seems to have rejoiced in being a sort of chameleon, playing hide and seek with a multitude of masks. But it’s also because she didn’t leave all that many tangible traces beyond the oral tradition of herself and those who knew her.
It seems she was born in Tidal Basin, Canning Town in London. Celine Hispiche who is the writer behind a new musical about her (more on that below), puts the year to 1893 and gives her birth name as Betty May Golding.
Her family was poor, and her father left Betty’s mother and his four children early on. Her mother, who according to Betty was half-French, worked in a chocolate factory and had to support her children on 10 shillings a week (not an adequate sum even in 1893). At some point, she and her brother were sent to live with their father in Limehouse. It seems not to have been the most sanitary arrangement, as she claims her father was living in a brothel, and was a heavy drinker and a nasty, brutal bully.
After a short interval with relatives in the country, after her father was imprisoned, she ran away to London. Although her account is obviously sanitised and skims over exactly how she survived, it reveals traits that seem to have shaped her life: a tough instinct for survival coupled with a strong thirst for pleasure.
She was drawn to the Bohemian circles and fought hard to inveigle herself with the artistic crowd hanging around the Café Royal. At the time, it was the haunt of people such as Augustus John, the critic Roger Fry, Nina Hamnett, the infamous prankster Horace de Vere Cole and Jacob Epstein, the sculptor. The latter especially seems to have been an object of Betty’s abject adoration. Apparently she even asked to dedicate her autobiography to him, and was rudely snubbed for her effort. According to herself, she “played the part of the baby and mascot of the Café Royal set”, and frequented the very first night clubs of London, including Madame Strindberg’s legendary Cave of the Golden Calf, as well as the bohemian haunt The Crabtree Club.
After various adventures – this part of the autobiography is especially incredible, and I suspect most of it is fiction – she married Miles L. Atkinson, whom she knew as Bunny, at the Marylebone Registry Office in 1914. Bunny was a trainee doctor and an inveterate drug addict. In Tiger Woman, she describes how he started snorting cocaine in the taxi to the train station after the ceremony, and how the entire honeymoon was spent doped up in a hotel room. She rather infamously states: “I learnt one new thing on my honeymoon – to take drugs.”
Her husband was killed in the war, and towards the end of it, she had become a heavy drug user. Cocaine and morphia were her drugs of choice, and she had grown paranoid and confused. She credits ending her addiction to an Australian husband she calls Roy, and who may have been the Waldron that the marriage records claim a Betty M. Golding married in 1916 (quaintly enough, the year before Bunny was killed). According to Tiger Woman, the marriage ended in divorce due to Roy’s infidelity. Possibly “Roy” was not his real name (if he even existed), but a monicker stolen from the novel Dope Darling by “Bunny” Garnett (note: not the same Bunny as the one Betty was previously married to), which was published in 1919, and whose central character Claire, beloved by a man called Roy, was allegedly based on her.
After the war, she sat as a model for both Jacob Epstein and Jacob Kramer, before falling head over heels for an Oxford student called Frederick Charles “Raoul” Loveday. Like all of her men (she seems to have had an unerring instinct for picking bad eggs), he was a rather troubled young man, who was, too boot, a fanatical acolyte of Alesteir Crowley. After their marriage, they travelled to Cefalu, Sicily where Crowley had set up the Abbey of Thelema for his pupils. Raoul seems to have suffered from poor health, and life at the Abbey did not improve it. Rather, Betty (admittedly not the most reliable of witnesses) implies he was growing weaker from his religious activities, which she claimed involved the ritual sacrifice of a cat, whose blood he consumed. He died in 1923, most probably from enteric fever.
Betty and Crowley appear to have had a mutual dislike for each other. It was likely motivated by jealousy, as both viewed Raoul as theirs and resented the other’s influence over him. The relationship was probably not helped by the fact that Betty had been sending reports to the Sunday Express of activities at the Abbey which they had published in less than flattering articles. Her accounts would later form a central issue when Crowley sued Nina Hamnett in 1934 for libel in her book Laughing Torso (the case was dismissed).
After Raoul’s death, Betty returned to London. As she puts it herself, “my life began to become rather incoherent”. Penniless and unable to find the sort of work she knew (i.e. modelling and dancing), she was miserably poor. “I had only one dress,” she writes, “which I used to wash myself and put on wet. Often I had nothing to eat all day.” Luckily she was saved by being able to sell an account of her life to a Sunday paper for £500, a considerable sum in those days.
In Tiger Woman, she claims to have then taken up with “Princess Waletka”, a performer who excelled in mind-reading, with whom she travelled to America on tour. Rather oddly, on her return she took up with a man called Carol, who was by profession a sporting journalist, and retired to the country to live with him and his ageing mother. That this would not be a successful match might not surprise anyone. That she ended up leaving him while he was desperately ill after eating a rook pie his mother claimed Betty had poisoned, may surprise you however (or maybe not, considering that there is absolutely no proof there’s any truth behind the whole thing, and it does make such a picturesque ending to the interlude).
This is where Tiger Woman ends, but the adventures of Betty May continued. She was part of the crowd that held court in The Fitzroy and the neighbouring area in Fitzrovia, and seems to have gone on gaily living from hand to mouth, carousing and taking up with an odd assortment of men, including the poet Edgell Rickword and writer Hugh Sykes Davies. Her name also featured in the bizarre trial against Douglas Burton for the murder of Douglas Bose, since Burton apparently had a rather morbid fixation on her.
After the 1930s, Betty May fades from sight and not much is known about her later life. From what I have been able to gather, however, she lived to the ripe old age of 86, and died as poor as she’d been born. I think it is safe to assume that she never ate her vegetables or wore sunscreen, thereby proving that sometimes dissolution is rewarded with remarkably good health and longevity.
As I mentioned initially, her life is now the subject of a musical, currently under production. It contains original songs written by Celine Hispiche with musical arrangements by Philippe Jakko. Since what is known about her life – or at least what we know about it, since the truth seems a rather elusive little bugger where Betty May is concerned – is absolutely fascinating, I’m very intrigued to see what eventually comes of it.